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Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

1. The Collapse of the Soviet Union
by James Graham
The collapse of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics radically changed the world's economic and political
environment. No other conflict of interest dominated the post World War Two world like the cold war did.
One man is credited with ending the cold war, Mikhail Gorbachev. This however was not the biggest event
Gorbachev was responsible for. The end of the cold war was just a by-product of the other major event he
was involved with. That is the fall of communism in the USSR and the collapse of the USSR itself.
Gorbachev a communist reformer was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union in 1985. His appointment followed the death of three previous Soviet leaders in three years. Leonid
Brezhnev was first to go followed by Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Not being able to afford
another short term leader the old guard appointed the youthful 56 year old Mikhial Gorbachev as General
Secretary.
From the outside it seemed as if this great superpower self destructed in only three months. The USSR's
demise is of course more complicated than this. The break up of the USSR can be traced back to
Gorbachevs appointment and his early reforms. Gorbachev introduced a wide ranging program of reform.
His major reforms were glasnost, perestroika and democratisation. These reforms allowed the problems of
the USSR to be uncovered and become public knowledge.
Ethnic unrest, economic inefficiency and historical atrocities were the major challenges Gorbachev faced.
How he dealt with these challenges and how successful he was is examined in this report.

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Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

2. Gorbachev's Glasnost
by James Graham
During an interview in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev is quoted as saying "I detest lies" (1.). It was this yearning
for the truth that lead him to introduce the policy of glasnost literally openness in English. The liberal press
exploited this leeway and continuously challenged its boundaries.
Whole periods of recorded Soviet history were changed by glasnost. Stalin, Brezhnev and Cherenko
previously great leaders were unmasked as the brutal oppressive murders they really were. Only Lenin
remained sacrosanct. Most telling of all, the school history exams for 1988 were cancelled. So much
conventional wisdom was overturned in the preceding months that the existing Soviet history books had
become useless. This change was not totally accepted by radicals or hardliners. The radicals wished to go
further, faster and were exemplified in such illegal publications as Glasnost. Hardliners tried to retain their
grip on people's minds by frequent attacks on the radicals in the conservative press. Prada the flagship
Communist Party newspaper thundered "that extremists and nationalists were hiding their true face
behind a mask of commitment to perestroika (2.). While glasnost did allow discussion to take place it is
clear from the exert that controls were placed on the discussion. The arrest and harassment of the more
radical papers staff and the removal of material from libraries still ensured the attacks found the right
targets. The early years of glasnost and thus the early years of freedom of speech in the USSR are
described and analysed in the exert.
The critical re-examination of history glasnost fostered was unprecedented in the USSR and affected every
chapter of the country's history. Khrushchev had previously criticised Stalin however he only let out partial
truths to help his own career. The difference this time was that a liberal press had been allowed to grow
and flourish within the USSR. Ogonyuk a popular current affairs magazine had a circulation of three million
by 1990. It was in newspapers, television shows and magazines like Ogonyuk that the USSR's past was
examined and the real truth revealed to the Soviet people. The liberal press did not take long to turn its
attention to the slowness in reform of the Soviet system.
Glasnost had broken free from its masters by 1989 and began to be used to criticise its creator Gorbachev.
Anything was now fair game. The abolition of the Communist Party's leading role, the failure of perestroika
and multi party democracy were openly discussed in the Soviet media. These ideas were undreamt of even
a couple of years earlier. The turning point for glasnost was the Chernobyl nuclear diaster in 1986. Soviet
authorities initially tried to cover up the catastrophe and remained silent for 48 hours. The silence was
followed by complete honesty and unparallel information of the like that had never been seen in the USSR
before. After Chernobyl environmental concerns became a favourite topic of the liberal press. The turning
of Central Asia into a desert by diverting rivers to irrigate cotton plantations were just one example that
shocked the nation. The people could not believe the incompetence of their Communist Party planners. As
the truth came out piece by piece the Soviet people became more and more angry at their Communist
rulers.
Glasnost allowed for the first time the facts to be presented. The Soviet people soon realised why so much
had been kept from them for so long. The USSR was in a mess but for the first time the people knew the
truth and were demanding answers.

2

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

3. Perestroika and the Soviet Economy
by James Graham
On taking office in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev faced one problem more daunting than all others combined.
The Soviet economy had been in a period of stagnation for two decades and was in desperate need of
reform. Gorbachev choose to adjust the old system with a period of perestroika or restructuring in the
hope of making it more efficient.
The accompanying graph is confusing and perhaps even misleading but its trend is clear. This however is
the Russian style and a graph of exactly the same period produced by Soviet authorities would have shown
the opposite trend. The Soviet people were used to reading newspapers back to front and were not fooled
by propaganda. What mattered to the people was how well stocked the shelves were and how long they
had to wait in queues. On both accounts the economy was in serious trouble with shortages of even the
most basic items like bread. The graph shows industrial and agricultural output declined during 1990-91
leading to a drastic fall in gross national product and national income. GNP in 1991 as a percentage of 1989
was over 20% less as was national income. By 1991 the Soviet economy had stopped declining and gone
into complete collapse.
How did perestroika fail so miserably? First of all Gorbachev never planned to remake the Soviet system he
merely wanted to modernise it. Minor adjustments he implemented were his attempts to discipline the
work force with slogans calling for "intensification and acceleration." Slogans were nothing new in the
USSR with huge posters carrying slogans present even in the countryside. This cannot be said for another
of Gorbachev reforms. He attempted to curb the production and sale of alcohol. While alcoholism was a
major problem in the USSR he inadvertently forced production underground. Like America during
prohibition the Mafia took control and has plagued Russia ever since. Other measures introduced under
perestroika were leasing land to farmers (all land was owned by the state), allowing loss making factories
to go bankrupt and limited numbers of private enterprises to open. McDonalds even opened a branch in
Moscow although its prices were out of reach for the average person. The most promising measure of all
was a cut in state spending especially in military expenditure. The reforms while on the right track were
not comprehensive enough to overcome the sluggishness in the Soviet economy. When more radical
changes were made they were mostly too late to prevent the slide in the economy and often had adverse
effects. This was the case with the long overdue 1991 price rises which caused panic buying of any and all
goods. Perestroika was to little too late to revive the Soviet economy.
The failure of perestroika was exacerbated by Gorbachev's continual boasting about the results that the
reforms would have. By publicly predicting an increase in peoples living conditions that never happened
Gorbachev was unmasked as an inept planner and of being incapable of making much needed decisions. In
the last years of perestroika erratic policy shifts were common with wide ranging reforms soon clamped
down on. Gorbachev's failure to approve Grigory Yavlinsky's 500 day economic plan in September 1990
after much earlier enthusiasm lost him any remaining support he still had from the Soviet people. Failing to
bring any significant change to the Soviet economy, Gorbachev lost the support of the people. By steering
a course between the conservatives and the reformers Gorbachev alienated almost everybody leaving
himself with few allies.
The Soviet economy was in decline as Mikhail Gorbachev took office and after much early hope he could
not prevent economic collapse. His insistence on slow gradual economic reforms annulled any positive
effects that the reforms might have had. This reluctance to introduce meaningful free market reforms to
the Soviet economy lost Gorbachev the support of the people.
3

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

4

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

4. Soviet Democratisation
by James Graham
"Democracy is the wholesome and pure air without which a socialist public organisation cannot live a full
bloodedlife."
(Quote from Mikhail Gorbachev's speech to the 27th Party Congress Moscow 25 February 1986)
Gorbachevs process of democratisation attempted to reform not only the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union but the USSR itself. His aim was to shift power away from the Politburo to reformers who supported
perestroika.
In this speech to the 27th Party Congress Gorbachev is expressing his belief that the party had to 'reform or
die'. Gorbachev is recognising the mistrust and dissatisfaction the Soviet people held the party in. Also he is
stating that he believes the Communist Party is drifting and failing in its duty to improve the standard of
living of the Soviet people. The choice of the words "socialist public organisation" is interesting as it
mentions socialist instead of communist. While the differences are slight he does seem to be hinting that
the party can not last forever as of right. The quotation introduces the idea of democracy if only to high
ranking members of the Communist Party.
Gorbachev delivered on his promise to introduce democracy to the Soviet Union. In 1987 Gorbachev began
the process of democratisation by implementing the right for Communist Party members to elect party
officials rather than have them appointed by senior party members. The Politburo and the General
Secretary the most powerful people in the Communist Party were still appointed. With change at all levels
of the party meeting stiff resistance, Gorbachev attempted to shift power away from it. During March 1989
the first elections in the USSR since 1917 were held. Representatives were elected to the soviets (councils)
of each republic and to the Supreme Soviet. The elections were anything but free and unbiased with
candidates standing unopposed in many areas. Even this trick did not always work. Anatoly Gerasimov the
Leningrad (now St Petersburg) party leader received a humiliating fifteen percent of the vote despite
standing unopposed. So many people had crossed his name out he failed to gain the necessary fifty
percent of the vote. Wherever reformers did stand, they ran away with the votes. This ensured roughly a
third of the Supreme Soviet was filled with dissenting voices like Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Sakharov and Baltic
representatives. Not being large enough in number to introduce policy the radicals instead used their
positions to gain information and voice their opposition to the Communist Party. No taboo was left
untouched as Sakharov called for the abolition of the party's leading role. Gorbachev was enraged by such
speeches but was powerless to prevent them. The Soviet people had never heard of anything like it and
were glued to their televisions almost non stop for days while the Supreme Soviet was in session. The
interest was so high a twenty percent fall in industrial output was officially blamed on the nations political
square eyes. As more political and economic power moved to the republics the Supreme Soviet became
obsolete. Delegates soon choose to attend their republic's soviet over the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev
began the process of democratisation but he increasingly opposed it as it was taken over from below.
Democracy in the USSR proved to be a disease of the mind. The more democracy Gorbachev sanctioned
the more radical the demands became for faster, wider reform. He was often left reacting to protesters
demands than genuinely introducing reform. The televising of the elected Soviet parliament simply
accelerated the change in people's minds. The old belief of "what can I do" became the new question "how
can I help?"
5

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

6

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

5. Ethnic Problems in the Soviet Union
by James Graham
The Soviet Union was the last great world empire. Its borders stretched from Europe to Asia, from the
Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Within these borders lived 120 different ethnic groups divided into
fifteen republics and various autonomous regions. Lenin believed nationalism would disappear under
communism and a Soviet people would emerge. This proved to be fundamentally false and Russian
nationalism and beliefs of superiority set the stage for ethnic conflict within the USSR.
The USSR was built on roughly the same territory as the Tsarist Russian empire. Joseph Stalin through
brute force and the slaughtering of national elites welded together the different ethnic groups. The map
shows that although a vast country over half the USSR was sparsely settled or uninhabited. During World
War Two whole races were moved to uninhabited areas on suspicion of co-operating with the Nazis. This
can be seen on the map by Germans (number 33) living in Central Asia. A total of 60 million people lived
outside their republics. The roots of the Armenian - Azerbaijani conflict over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh can also be seen clearly from the map. A pocket of Armenian people (31) is surrounded on all
sided by Azerbaijani. The Soviet Union had a diverse range of ethnic peoples between its borders.
With a multicultural society, individual republic's demands for independence where always going to cause
chaos in the USSR. Gorbachev could not let one territorial adjustment take place as there were 120
changes wanted by various ethnic groups. He often allowed the groups to fight it out sending in the army
only when the demonstrators started demanding independence. It was to stop anti Soviet demonstrations
that the military entered Baku leaving over 100 dead. Stained with the blood of its own citizens the military
lost much moral authority. The violence only hardened the resolve of the republics to break away from
Moscow. Independence demands often followed a pattern. Problems of language and culture were first
followed by the truth about the past, then the environment, then the economy, then political autonomy,
then the goal of sovereignty and finally independence. In this way the republics could build support for
independence without having to face the full wrath of Moscow.
With a large number of people and entire races living outside their homelands ethnic conflict in the USSR
only needed a spark to ignite. The spark was the economy's collapse. People became jealous and selfish of
what other republics enjoyed. Russians realised they were one of the poorest people and started to
complain. As did wealthier republics like the Baltic states who correctly suspected that they were being
dragged down by the rest of the union. Such realisations could only in the long run lead to demands for
independence.

7

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

6. Baltic Independence from the Soviet Union
by James Graham
Under Joseph Stalin the USSR re-annexed the Baltic countries in 1940. The independence the Baltic states
had enjoyed since the collapse of the Tsarist empire was over. The pretext for the invasion was the articles
of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that acknowledged Nazi Germany's and the USSR's separate spheres of
influence. Stalin promptly invaded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and deported or executed anyone who
held nationalist beliefs. Without national elites the USSR gained complete control over the Baltic people
and the articles formed the basis of the post Second World War Soviet state.
The greatest change glasnost made to Soviet culture was the people no longer feared the state. Lithuanian
people not only demonstrated but enjoyed their new found liberty. Demonstrators were often punished
severely in the USSR and throughout the late eighties there was widespread official warnings of violence.
The Lithuanian people were not deterred and the writer estimated 200,000 people risked their lives on
that day alone. The demonstration was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and marked the founding congress
of Sajudis. This demonstration and the dozens like it were as much a celebration of the Lithuanian peoples
rebirth of nationalism and pride as a protest against Soviet domination. The two went hand in hand as part
of the Soviet suppression was the banning of patriotic songs and poetry. Sajudis as Mr Cornwell states
started "as a ginger group for reform" soon grew in popularity and became a national front. It gained
support from "old and young", Russians and ethnic Lithuanians alike. The mention of "Stalin's crimes
against Lithuania" is particularly interesting. Stalin's crimes were suppressed and officially denied up until
Gorbachevs appointment. Only glasnost allowed the sorry tail of horror to become known and openly
discussed. The account is one of jubilation and courage by the Lithuanian people and of their pride in
finally starting to throw off the Soviet yoke.
Lithuania and the other Baltic states Latvia and Estonia set an example of rebellion for the rest of the USSR
to follow. In 1988 while the rest of the USSR was relatively calm the Baltic states were in open defiance of
the Kremlin. On 24 August 1989 half the adult population of the Baltics formed a human chain stretching
the entire length of the three republics to protest against the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet rule. The Soviet
authorities such was their loss of touch with the average person viewed the anniversary as a celebration. In
the parliamentary elections Sajudis swept the board. They were elected to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow
allowing their voices to be heard nationwide through televised coverage. On 11 March 1990 by 124 votes
to zero with six abstentions the Lithuanian parliament passed the Act of the Supreme Council on the
Restoration of the Independent Lithuanian State. This shocked the Kremlin who replied in the only way
they knew how. Tanks were sent in on the 22 March and five days later Soviet troops occupied strategic
buildings. Estonia and Latvia were not far behind declaring independence on 30 March and 4 May
respectively. Economic sanctions were applied but had no effect just like the military actions before them.
The Baltic republics blew a hole in the walls of the Soviet state. They had achieved the unthinkable by use
of mere people power, along the way setting an example for the other republics to follow. National fronts
were quickly established in most Soviet republics. Lithuania brought into the USSR by force had proved it
could leave through mass protests and popular support for independence.

8

Collapse of the Soviet Union Series

7. The Soviet Conservative Coup of 1991
by James Graham
Gorbachev was due to announce a new union treaty giving the republics limited self governance on the 20
august 1991. This forced the hardliners to act. Everybody who woke up to hear Tchaikovsky and Chopin
playing on the radio knew the inevitable had happened. "Here Chopin is not music. It's a diagnosis. They
always play it to calm us down" (1.). remarked a Russian after the event. Beginning just after 6:15am on
Monday 19 August the decrees for so long expected and feared were read out on Soviet radio and
television. The conservative hardliners had played their final card.
The biggest mistake the coup instigators made was failing to arrest Boris Yeltsin. Free he was able to lead
resistance against the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR, the name the hardliners
gave themselves. The Russian parliament building or the white house as it is known can be seen in the
background of the photograph. It was in the white house Yeltsin and other reformers made their stand.
The first tanks and other army personnel arrived at the parliament about noon on the first day. Yeltsin
strode out of the parliament and shook hands with the men in the first tank. Climbing on to the tank itself
he proceeded in front of live microphones and cameras to denounce the coup and encourage the Soviet
people to resist it at every opportunity. Protected only by his own personality it was a courageous act and
a vintage Yeltsin performance. Yeltsin's action was decisive in turning the momentum against the coup so
early. The resistance soon centred on the White House and demonstrators grew from a handful during
Yeltsin's speech to thousands by Monday evening. In the afternoon ten tanks in a symbolic move defected
and took up positions defending the parliament. In a flash of bravery Yeltsin stoped the coup in its tracks.
Within sixty hours the coup had collapsed. While Yeltsin did the most to defeat the coup he was not alone
in his resistance. Gorbachev under house arrest with his phones dead, cut off from the rest of the world
was issued an ultimatum by the coup leaders. He replied "To hell with you. You will not live long!" (2.). The
crucial reason the coup failed was that during the past six years of glasnost and perestroika the Soviet
people had lost their fear of the Communist Party. When tanks moved to break up demonstrations the
protestors unarmed started attacking the tanks. The Russians had always been a courageous people, the
battle of Stalingrad it testimony to that but they had up to the coup possessed a defeatist accepting
attitude at home. During the coup this changed and by Tuesday more than 100,000 people were gathered
at the parliament. The coup plotters own stupidity also contributed to the failure of the coup. They choose
not to cut the nations phone lines allowing the resistance to keep in contact with each other and the world.
The coup leaders gave in on Wednesday and the plotters either committed suicide or were arrested during
a last minute plea to Gorbachev for forgiveness.
The arrest of the hardliners and the defeat of the coup removed the last barrier to reform in the USSR.
Gorbachev who had tried to play the hardliners off against the reformers was left without an excuse to
implement radical reform. The Soviet people however no longer wanted reform instead they now wished
for a revolution. To defeat the coup Yeltsin had issued his own Russian decrees and he continued giving
orders in the name of Russia after the coup. This seriously undermined the authority of the Communist
Party and ultimately the USSR. Yeltsin's popularity soared after the coup and he used this to act like a head
of state rather than the head of a republic he was supposed to be. He sent Gorbachev an eviction notice in
December 1991 stating that the Communist Party had to leave the Kremlin. To top it all he negotiated the
end of the USSR at a meeting in Bialoawieza with the Ukraine and Belarus. Together they formed the
Commonwealth of Independent States and invited all the Soviet republics to join.

9


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